Scientists Say Chewing Gum Can Help Fight Malnutrition

Chewing gum is a pastime of many individuals. Some choose it for fighting bad breath, fighting nerves, or even fighting bad habits.

But a Danish chewing gum company Gumlink, in close collaboration with the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), has developed a new chewing gum with vitamin A to help battle malnutrition.

The company has just finished a pilot project in Nairobi, giving chewing gum with vitamin A to school children as a supplement to their daily diet and said that the potential is huge in the fight against malnutrition. "KEMRI currently ranks as one of the leading centre of excellence in health research both in Africa and well as globally, said Dr. Yeri Kombe, the director for Centre for Public Health Research at KEMRI.

Kombe said usually children are not allowed to chew gum in the classroom but it has been a bit different for the school children from four primary schools in the Mukuru slum area in Nairobi.

They have been given chewing gum with vitamin A as a supplement to their daily diet. A vast majority of the school children have been enthusiastic and seemed to enjoy the flavour but the reason for initiating the project is more somber.

"There is a need to promote innovative malnutrition initiatives if we want to solve the increasing challenges with malnutrition and we hope our company can contribute to a solution by providing an innovative product," said Gumlink's Vice President Henrik Jespersen who visited one of the schools in Nairobi on Wednesday.

Research showed a link between chewing gum after meals and improving oral health. The project measures the benefits of chewing gum, not only to improve oral health, but also in the areas of weight management, stress relief, and increased alertness and concentration.

Studies have shown the efficacy of chewing sugarless gum after eating meals. This is because the stimulation of saliva helps clear any acids remaining around the teeth and gums.

A study published in the Journal of Dental Research showed positive results of children chewing sugarless gum after meals with close to a 40 percent reduction of dental cavities compared to non-chewers. "The scope of the project has mainly been to investigate whether the children like the taste of this patented chewing gum. A good taste is a necessary if they are going to chew it and hereby getting the vitamin A," said Kombe. "As a regional leader in human health research we are always interested in conducting research that can improve the health in the general population."

Globally it is estimated that 140-250 million children under five years of age are affected by Vitamin A deficiency, with South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa having the highest share.

The children suffered dramatically increased risk of death, blindness and illness, especially from measles and diarrhoea. Chewing gum with vitamin A can help reduce the risks for these children significantly.

The gum, said Gumlink, has a stronger flavour that lasts longer. Normally chewing gum has no nutritional or food value, although it does provide a very small amount of carbohydrates. Some of the world's hungry people might be forgiven for eating the gum but it is made to be easily digested.

Last year, the Denmark-based Gumlink unveiled the new product in Kenya at a conference on malnutrition. The sugar-less gum will be marketed to three to five year olds.

The company did not say how much the gum might cost once on the market but said it will contain the daily recommended amount of Vitamin A.

"We are delighted to share this innovative product, and are confident that it will go a long way in stemming malnutrition in developing countries, by providing Vitamin A supplementation in a practical manner and at an affordable cost," Jespersen said.

Best practices dictate that supplements be complementary, not only with other vitamins and mineral supplements, but also with steps to safeguard health, such as using mosquito netting, the deworming of children and immunization programs.

Micronutrients can be used to fortify food, such as flour and other grains, and economists say that fortifying food is more cost effective than trying to provide supplements.

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